The Faint Past and Constructed Identity: The Challenges of Historical Awareness in Javanese Mennonite Church

Danang Kristiawan

Introduction

Talking about history in the Javanese Mennonite Church (Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa) is always difficult and challenging due to several factors. First, as the oldest Mennonite community outside of Europe and North America, dating back to 1854, the Javanese Mennonite Church has such a long history and has existed through many dynamic events, including Dutch colonization, Japanese occupation, the Indonesian revolution and struggle for independence, and the anti-Communist massacres of 1965-66. All of these events, and others, have had significant impacts on the survival of the archives and historical documents as well as the kinds of memories that have been handed down. Second, most Javanese Mennonite congregations live in rural and coastal areas in Northern Java and some parts of Sumatra. In the past, many rural people were uneducated and told their stories with an oral rather than written tradition. Third, many local churches show a lack of concern for history and administrative issues, including documenting and writing their experiences.

Making History, Constructing Identity: Hegemony of written tradition in an oral culture?

It is commonly understood that the most important resources for constructing and writing history are archival and documentary records. This inevitably means that history will be written from the perspective of the elites and educated people who had access and the ability to write. To know about early Javanese Mennonites, the written primary documents records are found in the writings of Pieter Janzs, the Dutch Mennonite Mission reports, and the colonial government documents, all of which are in Dutch. The most complete source is the Dutch-language diary of Pieter Janzs which has been edited by Alle Hoekema and published 1997 with title “Tot Heil van Java’s Arme Bevolking. Een Keuze uit het Dagboek (1851-1860) van Pieter Jansz, Doopsgezind Zendeling in Jepara, Midden-Java”. The mission report is preserved in Amsterdam. Additionally, there is a book by T. H. E. Jensma, Doopsgezinde Zending in Indonesie, written in 1968, about history of Mennonite mission in Indonesia based on Mennonite mission archives in Amsterdam. Therefore, our historical construction of Mennonites in Java starts from the Dutch Mission perspective. The lives, theology, and teaching of Javanese evangelists and believers are hidden because they did not leave written materials. Even though Kyai Ibrahim Tunggul Wulung had far more followers than Jansz, information about him is very limited. In mission documents, Jansz’s diary and reports, Wulung was pictured negatively, as not “really Christian” because of his many Javanese ways and ideas.

Writing history is also constructing identity and those who have power will make their story the dominant identity. In oral cultures, it’s very important to give attention to the oral story as well as written records. Both written and oral resources contain the same probability of truth and\or bias. Written documents were written in paper and preserved in archives. But oral tradition was also written in the hearts of the people and passed down between generations. For oral societies, validity does not become the main concern, but the question instead is how the story touch experiential meaning and values that they live.

Local Churches and their Unrevealed Histories

Of the 110 local churches which are members of the Javanese Mennonite Conference/Synod, only few churches have written histories. Many more churches haven’t written their history yet, even though they have existed more than forty years. These churches face similar problems when they start to write their local church histories:

  • The absence of documents and archives. Many churches are located in rural and coastal area and they lack concern to write church administrative records and documentation, even membership and baptismal records. So oral history approach will be useful for writing their history.
  • Many of those who know most about their church history have already passed away. Later generations often don’t understand their history because the history was not passed down to them.
  • There is a tendency in writing history in Indonesia to focus on leaders and church buildings. Many churches are mad about history which regards of whom, how, what, and where was the first of something. Sometimes the church history becomes the list of buildings.
  • Difficulty to decide on the start or the beginning of a new church in history. Is the beginning of the church counted from the first worship? Or is it the first baptism of local? Or is it the first church building? Or is it the first local church organization?

Conclusion:

This short reflection shows our struggles with archiving and maintaining history in the Javanese Mennonite Church. Talked about writing history is related to cultural tradition of society. It is important to think about archiving oral tradition by collecting story, legend, and myth which is connected to church and consider it as resource for writing history. Finally, I would encourage Anabaptist/Mennonite churches to more aware about their history, which is very important. Local churches should be more aware about documents, archives, local stories before all documents are lost, memories fade, and all witnesses die.

Trajchtmoakas, Parteras, and Midwives: 100 Years of Maternal Care in Chihuahua’s Mennonite Campos

Abigail Carl-Klassen

This article is the first in a series investigating the history of Mennonite midwives and doulas in the Tres Culturas region of Chihuahua, Mexico, including personal narratives of Mennonite midwives in the Campos, past and present and as well as an exploration of the intersection of midwifery training, culturally appropriate care and public health outcomes in the Tres Culturas Region.

On the surface it would appear that Catalina Schroder and Susanna (Fast) Shellenburg lived very different lives and embodied the differences and tensions that existed between traditional and non-traditional Mennonite communities in Mexico during their lifetimes, which spanned from the early 1900’s to the last quarter of the twentieth century. However, differences in country of origin, dress, religious and cultural practices, and approaches to education did not keep them from building bridges between communities and providing maternal care to women from all ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds in region surrounding Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, for nearly sixty years.

Catalina, who married her husband after a nontraditional courtship (which included learning to cook from her fiancé) was formally educated as a midwife in what is now modern-day Ukraine. The young family arrived in the Mexican state of Veracruz in 1926 via a ship from Russia, fleeing violence and religious persecution. Eventually, after many delays, including the loss of newly-issued government documents in a fire, they made their way north to Cuauhtémoc in the state of Chihuahua along with small number of other Low-German-speaking Mennonites who had immigrated directly to Mexico from Russia with the hopes of settling alongside five thousand Low-German-speaking Altkolonier Mennonites who arrived from Canada in 1922, after negotiating a Privelegium from President Álvaro Obregón.

Catalina’s grandson, Walter Rempening Rico, pastor of Templo Ebenezer, a Spanish-speaking Mennonite congregation in Cuauhtémoc, shared with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders Oral History Project (REBB) in 2018 how his grandmother, grandfather and their young children settled in the city of Cuauhtémoc and quickly integrated into many aspects of local Mexican culture because Mennonites from Russia were not allowed to live in the nearby Altkolonier colonies because of their less traditional lifestyle, dress and approach to education. Despite community prohibitions, Catalina worked tirelessly as a Trajchtmoaka, a sobadora (bonesetter), and midwife, and was, highly sought after to attend births for traditional Mennonite women and was beloved in the traditional, non-traditional, and Mestizo communities she served. 

Susanna Shellenberg, on the other hand, was a traditional Altkolonier Mennonite woman from Canada who arrived in Mexico with her husband Heinrich and young daughters in 1927 and was able to live in the traditional Mennonite Darpe, which was settled many kilometers outside of Cuauhtémoc in the years following the initial 1922 migration from Canada. 

In Canada, Susanna had trained under two Orthodox Jewish women as a midwife and herbal healer, and she continued her work upon her arrival in Mexico. Her granddaughter, Susanna Thiessen, who is also a midwife, related in a recent interview with Casa Geburt, a midwifery and doula training school and birthing center located in the Campos Menonitas about twenty minutes north of Cuauhtémoc, “At that time there were no doctors in the Cuauhtémoc area. She immediately began to care for the sick. After some years in Mexico, she also began to provide midwifery services. She served in the Campos Menonitas, as well as in the Mexican ranches. Sometimes, people came for her in the middle of the night in a horse and buggy to take her to attend births or to heal the sick. Many times the people were so poor, they couldn’t even offer her a coffee. She attended many births where she didn’t receive payment of any kind. She also took along baby clothes and blankets because she knew that the people didn’t have anything to keep their babies warm.”

Susanna worked as a midwife until she was eighty years old. Near the end of her life, after she had attended her last birth, the birth of her great-grandson, she was asked about the number of babies she helped bring into the world and she responded, “How many births have I attended? I don’t know. I never wrote it down. For me, it is good that God knows.”

Since the days of Catalina Schroder and Susanna Shellenberg, midwives in the Campos from traditional and non-traditional communities have occupied a vital role in community life and have been at the center of changing dynamics in the region over last century. There is a strong heritage of midwifery in each of Cuauhtémoc’s three cultures (from which the Tres Culturas Region derives its name): Mennonite, Mestizo, and Indigenous Rarámuri Pueblo. Midwives in each community, while distinct, are powerful advocates for women who are marginalized because of language, ethnicity and/or socio-economic status and serve as public health practitioners and educators in some of the most at-risk and underserved regions for maternal and child health in the country. Often operating at the margins of the official community rules, subverting taboos surrounding reproductive health, pregnancy and breastfeeding, midwives in the Mennonite communities of Chihuahua have always been invaluable in the creation of support networks between women and as agents of cross-cultural women’s solidarity and as bridge builders between communities that have historically experienced tension for a variety of cultural, economic and socio-political reasons. 

The next article with further explore Susanna Shellenberg’s life and experiences as a midwife and will include perspectives from her great-granddaughter Susanna Thiessen who, in keeping with family tradition, is a midwife in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua.

A Visit to a Mennonite Community in Germany, 1881

Mark L. Louden

In the history of popular writings about the Pennsylvania Dutch, their culture and language, Phebe Earle Gibbons (1821–1893) occupies a place of importance. Born into a prominent Hicksite Quaker family in Philadelphia, Gibbons received a relatively good formal education for a female of her era. In 1845 she married a farmer and physician, Joseph Gibbons (1818–1883), from Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County, where they made their home. Among their many activities, Joseph and Phebe brought out an important progressive Quaker periodical, The Journal: A Paper Devoted to the Interests of the Society of Friends. Phebe, in addition to raising five children, became a prolific journalist who in 1869 wrote an essay, “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, garnering national attention. This essay was reprinted along with several others in an anthology that was first published in 1872 and then in two expanded editions in 1874 and 1882. Gibbons’s book was reprinted in 2001 with an extensive introduction by Don Yoder.

In 1881 Gibbons traveled to Europe and spent some time visiting Mennonites in Germany, writing letters home that were published in the Lancaster Intelligencer. Below is one of these letters, describing her visit to the Mennonite community at Kühbörncheshof located near the community of Katzweiler, which is ten kilometers north of Kaiserslautern in the Palatinate. The Kühbörncheshof congregation was founded by Swiss exiles in 1715 and is still active today. Gibbons’s letter appeared in the September 21, 1881, issue of the Intelligencer. The spellings of some of the place names have been amended to reflect how they are written today.

Exterior view of the Kühbörncheshof Mennonite church. Von Sokkok – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25923214

Among the Mennonites
Comparisons of Germany and Lancaster County
Glimpses into the Social Life of the Bavarian Farmer
Kühbörncheshof, near Katzweiler, in the Rhenish Palatinate, Bavaria, Germany
August 28, 1881

It is now Sunday morning, and at about half-past nine there is to be a meeting in the Mennonite meeting house in this small settlement. The people call it Gottesdienst, or God’s service. It holds about an hour.

Like our people in Lancaster County, these were originally of Swiss origin. The names here, or belonging to the community, are Lattschar, Rink, Weber, Koller, Bachmann and Schowalter; of which it will be noticed that the greater part are also found in Pennsylvania.

My last letter to you described my visit to Krefeld, where the Mennonite community are living in that manufacturing town. Here, however, in this little settlement, the people are farmers, living on their own land, and seeming to have prospered, much like our people at home.

I am now tarrying in the city of Speyer, on the west side of the Rhine, in Southern Germany; and hearing of this community, or settlement, I concluded to visit it. First I was to take the rail to Kaiserslautern, and there take the post-omnibus for Katzweiler, a village at a distance of about five miles. I was told to stay there over night on Saturday, and walk out to the Mennonite community in the morning. However, as I remembered the ways of our people at home, I bethought myself that it would be better to make myself known in the evening before, as there might be some distance to go to meeting, or some arrangement to make which it would be more agreeable to have planned over night. And it was fortunate for myself that I did so.

Having been left by the post-wagon at Katzweiler, at a small public house, the landlord had just consented to send me over in charge of a young girl, when he caught sight of two of the Mennists with a wagon. On the road I had seen a party of market women coming home in a wagon drawn by cows, a common sight in this country, but these Mennonites had good horses and were very polite in arranging a seat for me on a large bundle of straw. Some of the people on my journey who had learned that I am from America seemed to be quite interested in me, while I found persons about as good at asking questions as the Yankees at home. Thus in one of the towns I passed through I went into a shop to get something. I had spoken of being in a hurry for the omnibus, and the man wanted to know “Where are you going?” I said, “to Katzweiler.” “Have you relations there?” “No, sir.” “What did you come from France for?” “I did not come from France.” As I spoke German poorly, or perhaps used some French words, he inferred that I was from France.

I had asked the young Mennonites, of whom I have before spoken, to what house I would better go in the settlement, and when they drew near they said that I should go to their house. The house was good sized and very well built; not, however furnished with rag carpets, like so many of our farmers’ houses at home, but with sanded floors and stone.

Before supper the mother of the family (who had seven daughters and one son) asked me what I would have. I answered a glass of milk, warm from the cow. A noble glass was brought me with cake sprinkled with cinnamon. After while their regular supper was ready, and they seemed to think it not nice enough to invite me to sit down, but I desired to do so, being glad to see the manner of living. Before going to the table all the family stood a few moments as if in silent prayer, and again in the same manner after eating. Besides those already mentioned, there were a widowed aunt and the husband of one of the daughters. The latter was one of those with whom I rode home. The supper was potato soup, this being the only article of food on the table. A deep dish of soup was set at each end, and each member of the family provided with plate and spoon; some of the plates being tin. The soup contained mashed potatoes and bread, butter and herbs, but no meat. It was good. I think that one of the family said to me, “You have meat in America.” I understood that their usual food is potatoes and milk. They seem, however, to have plenty of rye bread. They also had some beautiful white bread, made for Sunday. To read of such simplicity of living it might be supposed that the people are poor. This family has, however, eighty acres, six cows besides calves, and as I have already said, horses. Food is doubtless expensive, however, butter being now about 31 cents a pound. It will be found that where people eat so sparingly they eat more frequently.

The settlement no longer has an unpaid ministry as with us. Until lately they had; but a few years ago they concluded to employ a minister. However, he is not heavily paid. He preaches by turns in three different settlements, and receives a salary of about $180, having too a wife and infant. There are larger communities, however, which pay as much as $250 to $450.

Interior view of the Kühbörncheshof Mennonite church. The inscription on the wall is from Psalm 100:2, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” Von Sokkok – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25923317

There was no organ in the little church which I visited today, and in most respects it seemed as simple as some Mennonite meetings that I have seen in Lancaster County. One marked difference is that all the prayers seemed to be read from a book. I may add that none of the women wore white caps, a few wore black caps or head-dresses, but the greater part appeared without any and with their hair very neatly braided.

The ancestors of these people came from Switzerland in 1715, and there are still small Mennonite settlements in that country.

The first who came from Switzerland to the place I have today visited seems to have built himself a log house; the country being nearly covered with wood with wild animals therein. Others joined him until the little settlement numbered eight families. But counting all in the country round belonging to this church, it is said to have ninety-four baptized persons. They baptize at age of thirteen. They are no longer in this part of Germany allowed to purchase exemption from military service; all who are drawn must serve without any exception.

There was give me today a list of most of the Mennonites communities in Europe. Some of the names in Germany will be very familiar to our people at home, such as Stauffer, Lehmann, Neff, Krehbill, Muselman, Bar and Landes.

Before closing I will add a few words on the language. As spoken in South Germany it is softened as reyer or reschen for regen, rain. Among the Mennonites I caught the sound of moryets for morgens [‘mornings’], and obits or owats for abends [‘evenings’]. It is quite probable that one familiar with the “Pennsylvania Dutch” of Lancaster County would find great resemblance in it to the language spoken among the Mennonites here.

Reference:

Gibbons, Phebe Earle. 2001. Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays, with an introduction by Don Yoder. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Russian German Baptists in the Bolivian countryside: Reflections on youth migration to and local incorporation in Bolivia

Anna Flack

Like every evening at 5 p.m., the teenagers Martha and Hilda had to milk the cows. I joined them to make the time pass by faster. Martha told me about her wishes: braces to straighten her teeth and a visit to Germany. Due to their family’s financial situation, she did not expect to see her wishes come true. Work here was hard. The girls were milking cows already for five years, although they did not want to. Whereas the girls and their mother would like to return to Germany immediately, the father strictly wanted to stay in Bolivia, Martha said.

Livestock farming: chickens and cows. Photo by the author.

Starting with this description of the situation recorded in my field diary, I would like to present and reflect on my exploratory two-week field trip to the Santa Cruz department of Bolivia at the end of July 2019. As I am just at the beginning of my postdoctoral project, I had no narrow observation focus when I went to my field research.

I want to briefly outline the general idea of my project: Taking the migrations of my relatives, who moved to Bolivia in 2011 after having lived more than twenty years in Germany, as a starting point, I would like to explore and reconstruct exemplarily the life paths, migration motives and belongings of globally migrating Russian Germans.1 The transnational dimension of Russian German’s past and present provides much potential.2 At least in the German-speaking scholarship, there has not been devoted much attention to Russian German’s onward migrations to further countries yet. Apart from Russian Germans’ migrations between Russia and Germany actually there can be observed at present the quantitatively rather insignificant phenomenon of further migrations to the Americas. These further migrations primarily concern Russian German Mennonites and Baptists. They are attracted by Russian German congregations and colonies from Canada to Argentina that have been in existence – depending on their location – for some decades to over one hundred years. Starting from 1874, these Mennonites had left the Russian Empire when their privileges had been removed, among others concerning religious freedom and exemption from military service. Others left after the Russian revolution in 1917, and during the Second World War when they were resettled by Nazi Germany and later moved overseas as part of Mennonite refugee resettlement schemes.3

What I do not want to research are the very conservative and isolated Old Colony Mennonites who migrated from the Russian Empire to the Americas one hundred years ago.4 My research focuses instead on a village in Bolivia and its Russian German Baptist population, mainly having moved here from Germany within the last two decades, after having left the (former) Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s.

As the introductory description of the situation shows, it can be interesting to read my empirical data – which is based on participant observation and biographical interviews – through the lens of family and youth migration and integration. That is what I intend to do in this contribution.

A village in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

I will present the different perspectives, experiences, meanings and wishes of my relatives’ six children as I perceived them during my field research.5 By doing this, I will outline some major topics emerging from the gathered empirical data. Therefore, this work-in-progress paper primarily constitutes an ethnography. Following Nina Glick Schiller, I focus on the local perspective to analyze “multiple pathways of local and transnational incorporation.”6 Applying this theoretical framework, it is also possible to avoid methodological nationalism. Ideally, this ethnographic paper will contribute to evolve and sharpen a research question for my planned postdoctoral project.

Due to data protection and research ethics the children’s names are anonymized. At the time of my field research, the four first born children are in their late twenties. The two last born daughters are teenagers.

Heinrich and Georg

Heinrich and Georg were already adults when the father decided to migrate to Bolivia. From the beginning, neither of them wanted to leave Germany. Georg finished school in Germany and tried his luck to find an apprenticeship. The company where he passed an internship wanted him to work without payment until the beginning of the apprenticeship. Georg rejected that offer and joined his family in Bolivia. Heinrich, too, repeatedly tried to establish himself professionally in Germany. In the following years, he moved between Bolivia and Germany several times, accumulating debts.

Other Russian German Baptists in the neighborhood, who had left Germany for Bolivia, told me that their adult children either stayed in Germany when their parents and younger siblings migrated, or they returned to Germany, especially for education and work purposes. Having grown up and having attended school in Germany, it was difficult to leave the former life and friends and to imagine a future perspective in the overall foreign Bolivian countryside.

The only asphalted road in the village. Photo by the author.
A residential district in the village. Photo by the author.

Heinrich’s and Georg’s experiences show that the family constitutes a kind of “safety net.” If the children fail their professional efforts in Germany, they can return to their family, even if they live on another continent.

When I visited the family at the end of July, Heinrich was already planning to return to Germany. He wanted to seek an apprenticeship. To earn money for the flight ticket, Heinrich worked for some other emigrants, also Russian German Baptists like them.

Heinrich’s case shows, on the one hand, that migration challenges the family relationship. The eldest son has to decide whether to continue living with his parents and siblings – as he did all of his life – or to return to familiar Germany, where he would have to start his own life from scratch. In the past, the parents had to decide whether to acquire debt to enable their son (repeatedly) to join the family in Bolivia, thus exacerbating the family’s financial situation. On the other hand, Heinrich’s case indicates the importance of a “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” in the Bolivian village for economic reasons. This neighborhood is also very important for the rest of the family, as will be further detailed later. To earn money for his return ticket to Germany, Heinrich works for people who talk in his mother tongue German and live in his neighborhood. In fact, the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” had been one of the major reasons why the family had moved to this particular place and not to another with better infrastructure or more fertile soil for agriculture, for example. Heinrich’s father has known some of the neighbors since his childhood in the Soviet Union. Thus, the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” guarantees local incorporation – in a social as well as in an economic sense. We can call it an ethno-religious network.

Shipping containers in front of a recently migrated Russian German Baptists’ house. Photo by the author.

Georg, at present, plans his future in Bolivia. He has married a local Mennonite woman. His wife originates from a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. She is a descendant of Mennonites who left the Russian Empire about one hundred years ago. She has never lived in Germany. Thus, Georg is integrating in Bolivia by founding his own family. Furthermore, by the support of his brother-in-law, Georg started his own business and is now able to earn his and his wife’s living. Georg’s example illustrates the influence of local and regional relationships on the decision to stay. What is important to mention here is the fact that his social network consists of other Russian Germans, or rather Mennonites. Although Georg does not practice a religion, the ethno-religious group seems to be the most important reference point for private contacts. Further contacts to other locals or indigenous Bolivians exist, but primarily due to Georg’s business.

Rudi

Third-born Rudi presents a largely different case in comparison to his elder brothers concerning his attitude towards the emigration. He had been curious about living in Bolivia. Besides his thirst for adventure, another push factor for his consent to the migration seems to be the fact that he too, like his brothers, failed to establish himself professionally in Germany.

During my field research Rudi presented himself as a passionate livestock farmer. He told me the cows’ names and showed me the fences he had built. Rudi had been the first to migrate to Bolivia. He had wanted to prepare everything for his family when they would follow some months later.

Cattle. Photo by the author.

Moreover, Rudi expressed his lack of understanding concerning his brothers’ disinterest in learning how to fix motorcycles or how to drive and operate a tractor and other machines. He had learned everything by trial and error, as he proudly explained to me. It was obvious that Rudi did not waste a single thought on returning to Germany, even though the family suffered severe economic setbacks. Rudi is convinced that he could realize a big business here.

However, apart from the economic setbacks, there are some other issues Rudi complained about. Since the neighbor’s sons moved to Germany to complete an apprenticeship, Rudi had no more friends. He was not interested in personal contacts to other locals or indigenous Bolivians. Furthermore, Rudi complained that even the “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” was not reliable at all. For example, he would never again lend a machine to one of his neighbors, because they did not take care of it. He also complained that people cannot trust each other.

Fences. Photo by the author.

For Rudi livestock farming in Bolivia meant a life plan, despite the many and severe financial setbacks. He is locally incorporated insofar as he can do the work he likes as he likes. Concerning Rudi’s social incorporation, another picture emerges. The “Russian German Baptist neighborhood” that was so fundamental for the emigration decision, for the mutual support of the emigrants and for coping with the daily life in the Bolivian countryside, does not fulfill Rudi’s requirements for reliable friendships. The temporary return migration of his peers for educational and professional reasons results in a reduction of local friendships and thus a lack of local social incorporation. Nevertheless, apparently, Rudi’s social requirements seem to be secondary, whereas work is more important for him to feel comfortable in Bolivia.

Judith

Judith, the eldest daughter, was not with us when I visited her family in Bolivia. Some weeks before my visit, she had followed the example of the neighbor’s children and had moved to Germany to find an apprenticeship. As I already mentioned, many of the Russian German Baptist young adults in their neighborhood choose this option to develop a future perspective – not necessarily in Germany, but rather in Bolivia. I was told the story of a young man who finished an apprenticeship as surgical assistant in Germany and now runs his own doctor’s surgery in Bolivia. Officially the surgery belongs to a native Bolivian doctor.

Judith’s example indicates the significance for more or less recently emigrated Russian German Baptists to maintain transnational ties to the country of origin. Germany obviously is still very important for the emigrants to (try to) establish an existence in Bolivia. As the Bolivian labor market seemingly does not offer the opportunity for professional training, but requires to work self-employed, and, in some cases, due to the lack of Spanish language skills, the maintenance or establishment of social networks in Germany is perceived as a valuable resource. In this context, a religious social network can be very crucial. By joining a Baptist youth club back in Germany, Judith can network and thus maybe enhance her chance to get a professional training faster. At least the Baptist youth club helps her to find accommodation until she will be able to stand on her own feet, to cope with her homesickness and to reintegrate in Germany.

Tractor imported from Germany. Photo by the author.

Indeed, I would even go so far to say that if there were no transnational networks and the possibility for the emigrants to return temporarily to Germany and complete a professional training, earn some money (as I heard from other families) or buy machines (as my relatives did), many of the Russian German livelihoods in Bolivia would not be capable to persist or at least to maintain a living standard more or less comparable to that they got used to in Germany. These Russian German Baptist emigrants probably would have to adapt to the survival strategies of Mennonites without German citizenship or of other local inhabitants. In short, one has to be able to afford the emigration from industrialized Germany to rural Bolivia.

Martha and Hilda

Martha and Hilda are teenagers and the two youngest children. When the family migrated to Bolivia, Martha had only started to attend school. Due to their young age at the migration, both of them have relatively little memories of life in Germany. They are the only family members who attend a Bolivian school. Thus, they speak Spanish on a high level. That is why they often have to help their parents with communication. Moreover, the girls are responsible for milking the cows, feeding the calves, selling milk, doing the everyday grocery shopping together with their mother and cleaning up the house. To sum up, the family structure is rather conservative and patriarchal. Everyday tasks are separated along gender. While the mother and daughters are engaged with cooking, cleaning and milking, the men work outside the house with cattle and metal. Decisions are taken by the father, but the sons have the right to give instructions to the girls, too.

Classroom in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

In general, Martha and Hilda did what they were told. However, I could perceive some kind of resistance. For example, they regularly delayed the milking of the cows that had to be done twice a day, always at the same time. After a short period of adaptation to my attendance, they regularly complained – even in the presence of their father – that they did not want to milk the cows anymore and that they wanted to visit Germany. Furthermore, the girls complained that they were never allowed to meet with classmates because they are indigenous Bolivians which means collas and cambas. Martha and Hilda complained having to wear skirts instead of trousers due to religious reasons and having to attend services and bible groups with their parents.

Grocery store in the Bolivian countryside. Photo by the author.

These and other examples show Martha’s and Hilda’s more or less latent resistance against the patriarchal family structure. They openly expressed their dissatisfaction with their obligations in conjunction with the livestock farming, their longing for more independence and their wish to go to Germany, at least temporarily. Concerning local incorporation, it can be said that Martha and Hilda – unlike their brothers – would like to deepen their friendships with their indigenous classmates, but are not permitted to meet them outside the school. Their contact with Bolivians is reduced to school and to the economic sphere, when Martha and Hilda sell milk or buy groceries. Moreover, as they have to stay at home and help in the household, Martha and Hilda in general seldom have the possibility to keep friendships, even with their “Russian German Baptist” neighbors. Due to the conservative family model and gender roles the teenager girls’ local incorporation is made more difficult.

Preliminary “final” remarks

These have been the six perspectives of one family’s children that, in my opinion, provide much and diverse information on youth migration to and integration in Bolivia and the potential for further research. In conclusion, concerning local incorporation it can be said that friendships and economic relations are primarily concentrated on the Russian German Baptist neighborhood. Secondly, the family maintains relationships in different areas of life with local Mennonites living in and around homogenous colonies. Personal contact to indigenous Bolivians, collas and cambas, thirdly, is generally in most cases not considered desirable and therefore reduced to an indispensable, mostly economic level.

Concerning transnational incorporation it can be summarized that the maintenance or the establishment of transnational relationships can be an important resource with regard to educational, professional and economic aspirations. The use of the relatively new communication technology of smartphones and especially of WhatsApp plays a crucial role for the maintenance of transnational relationships. Although Baptists in Germany generally refuse for example to watch television, the use of smartphones with all of its possibilities is accepted. Each family member has his and her own smartphone. Among other things, they maintain (or revive) contact with relatives and friends in Germany and other migrated relatives in North America.

What is also interesting here is the fact that the transnational lifestyle of seemingly most of the Russian German Baptists in the neighborhood seems to be an obstacle for local incorporation. Stable, long-lasting relationships cannot emerge due to the constant migration flows.


  1. Concerning the family biographical approach cf. C. Wirth, Memories of Belonging. Descendants of Italian Migrants to the United States, 1884-Present (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2015).
  2. Cf. V. Dönninghaus, J. Panagiotidis, H.-C. Petersen, “Jenseits der ,Volksgruppe‘. Neue Perspektiven auf die Russlanddeutschen zwischen Russland, Deutschland und Amerika,” in ibid., eds., Jenseits der ,Volksgruppe‘. Neue Perspektiven auf die Russlanddeutschen zwischen Russland, Deutschland und Amerika (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018), 7–27.
  3. Cf. e.g. C. J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History. 3d. ed. (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1993); B. W. Goossen, Chosen Nation. Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2017).
  4. Cf. e.g. R. Loewen, Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016); L. Cañás Bottos, Old Colony Mennonites in Argentina and Bolivia: Nation making, religious conflict and imagination of the future (Leiden: Brill, 2008).
  5. The following descriptions are based on Anna Flack’s Field Diary, written from 22nd July until 4th August 2019, in Bolivia.
  6. N. Glick Schiller, Beyond Methodological Ethnicity. Local and Transnational Pathways of Immigrant Incorporation (Malmö: Willy Brandt Series of Working Papers in International Migration and Ethnic Relations, 2, 2008), 2; N. Glick Schiller, A. Çağlar, “Towards a Comparative Theory of Locality in Migration Studies. Migrant Incorporation and City Scale,” in, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35, 2 (2009), 177–202.

Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the writings of a “Spiritual Mother”

“She should have been a bishop!” Barbara Nkala pounded the table emphatically.1 An historian and long standing member of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, Nkala’s voice echoes that of many in that community, who continue to hold up the memory of pioneer missionary H. Frances Davidson.2 Davidson is remembered for having travelled from the Kansas prairie to the Matopo Hills in 1898 to help establish a mission there; well over a century later, members of the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ church still regard her as their “spiritual mother.”3

My current research is taking further my previous observations on the spiritual awakening that inspired Davidson’s conversion from college teacher to missionary.4 Following in the wake of other Protestants who have retained a reverence for Mary, for Davidson, an encounter with what she called “that great work Murillo’s Immaculate Conception” proved to be a moment of transformation and awakening.5 Coming face to face with that masterpiece on a class trip to the Chicago Fine Arts Museum immediately followed what she recorded in her journal as a moving and productive session of writing on the Faery Queen for a literature class she was taking at University of Chicago.6 These encounters in March 1895 coincided with Davidson’s thirty-fifth birthday, and seem to have kindled a passion which had previously lain dormant.7 As she recorded in her journal that evening, “Beauty, in its supreme development, invariable (sic) excites the sensitive soul to tears. There seemed to be in me a longing and restlessness, a desire for something higher and beyond.”8

As these recollections suggest, Davidson’s journals appear to have provided her with a confidante, a safe place where she could express joy and process inner turmoil. In her missionary career, for instance, she wrote of her struggles as she denied the urge to step out in leadership in ways that she, as the social mores of the time, deemed inappropriate for a woman. Scholars have investigated the pioneer leadership emphasizing her vision, and unique strength as an “unwomanly woman.”9 Through her writings, we can decipher ways that she dealt with the conflict of the external and internal pressures pressing her to take on spiritual leadership normally reserved for men.

In my quest to explore the writings of H. Frances Davidson, I anticipate becoming better acquainted with this “spiritual mother” of Brethren in Christ women. Expressing her spiritual struggles in language familiar to the piety of her evangelical tradition, her desire to surrender self, and to know God’s will echo the Sophia mysticism of Jacob Boehme and medieval mystics.10 What do the mystical moments, which she articulated in ways reminiscent of the deeper conversion and transformation of gelassenheit or surrender to God’s will familiar in Anabaptist piety as well as colonial pietism, reveal about the faith, and the strong leadership of this spiritual mother who remains to this day an iconic figure for her denomination the Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe, Zambia, the United States and Canada?


  1. Conversation with Barbara Nkala, 23 June 2017, at “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries,” a conference held at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. She has authored and co-authored several books on the denomination’s history including Celebrating the Vision: A Century of Sowing and Reaping (Bulawayo: Brethren in Christ Church, 1998); see also Nkala and Doris Dube, Growing and Branching Out: Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa (Harare, Zimbabwe: Radiant Press, 2014) and Bekithemba Dube, Doris Dube and Barbra Nkala. “Brethren in Christ Churches in Southern Africa,” edited by John A. Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder, 97-191, in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: a Global Mennonite History, vol. I, Africa, (Intercourse, PA: Good Books and Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003). Nkala is a member of the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ Church.
  2. The photo is of Davidson and Adda Engel, that appears as the frontispiece in H. Frances Davidson, South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915).
  3. Dube, Dube and Nkala, Anabaptist Songs, 150-55; Wendy Urban Mead, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015), 38, 42, 49-50, 60, 76.
  4. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Missions,” Brethren in Christ History & Life Vol. XI no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52; “History as Relationship,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/10/16/history-as-relationship/
  5. Immaculate Conception of El Escorial (Bartolome Estaban Murillo, 1650), Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Immaculate_Conception_of_El_Escorial Accessed 16 December 2019.
  6. Queen Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait c. 1600–02 attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portraiture of Elizabeth I of England, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portraiture_of_Elizabeth_I_of_England Accessed December 16, 2019; “for a contemporary convert to The Faery Queen, see Brenton Dickieson, “On Reading the Faerie Queene for the First Time,” A Pilgrim in Narnia, June 3, 2015, https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2015/06/03/fq/.
  7. Earl D. Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 56-57.
  8. Hannah Frances Davidson, Diaries, 13 March 1895; her journals have been edited by E. Morris Sider and published in Brethren in Christ History and Life. See “The Journal of Frances Davidson.” “Part 1: The Early Years (1861-1895)” 8, no. 2 (August 1985): 103-23; “Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898)” 8, no. 3 (December 1985): 181-204; “Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904)” 9, no. 1 (April 1986): 23-64; “Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908)” 9, no. 2 (August 1986):125-49; “Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931)” 9, no. 3 (December 1986): 284-309.
  9. See, for instance, E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” in Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214; Wendy Urban-Mead, “Religion, Women and Gender in the Brethren in Christ Church, Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, 1898-1978,” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2004); and “An Unwomanly Woman and Her Sons in Christ: Faith, Empire, and Gender in Colonial Rhodesia, 1899/1906,” in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960, ed.Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie Shemo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 94-116.
  10. Ruether, Goddesses, 230-31. Beulah Hostettler links Jacob Boehme with Martin Boehme who influenced colonial Pietism. American Mennonites and Protestant Movements: A Community Paradigm (Wipf & Stock, 2002). https://books.google.ca/books?id=3MJKAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA34&lpg=PA34&dq=were+Jacob+Boehme+and+Martin+Boehme+related?&source=bl&ots=sku2sdDZwP&sig=ACfU3U0Nu13toTVrewpzsr701-prjqV1QA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjAg6uep7vmAhUB01kKHctMCmUQ6AEwCHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=were%20Jacob%20Boehme%20and%20Martin%20Boehme%20related%3F&f=false Accessed December 16, 2019.

Relaunched: The Classics of the Radical Reformation Series

83415202_653579875468216_6692021859958915072_nThe Classics of the Radical Reformation Series is published under the auspices of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Institute for Mennonite Studies and overseen by a reference council of scholars from Canada and the United States, a group I joined in 2018.  Since the 1970s, the series has existed “to offer in the English language, scholarly and critical editions of the primary works of Reformers of the Radical Reformation…also intended for the wider audience of those interested in Anabaptist and free church writers of the sixteenth century.”[1] The first nine volumes, published from 1973 to 1999, were published by Herald Press, while the remaining five volumes, which first appeared between 2001 and 2017, were published by Pandora Press. The series included the writings of such prominent sixteenth-century figures as Pilgram Marpeck, Balthasar Hubmaier, Michael Sattler, Andreas Karlstadt, and David Joris, as well as collections organized by genre (confessions of faith) and loose geographical networks (Swiss Anabaptism and South German/Austrian Anabaptism). They have proved an indispensable resource for both academics (I cited multiple volumes in my doctoral dissertation) and interested pastors and laypeople.

As some of the older titles fell out of print, however, it has become increasingly difficult for those without borrowing privileges from well-stocked university libraries to access the full series. In the interests of making all the volumes accessible to a new generation of readers, the entire series was republished by Plough, the publishing house of the Bruderhof, in late 2019. Plough marked the republication of the series with a November 23rd launch in San Diego, during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature.[2] The first nine volumes, originally published by Herald Press, also have updated prefaces (from the author where possible, and otherwise from top scholars in the field).

The following volumes are now available from Plough: [3]

  1. The Legacy of Michael Sattler (edited by John H. Yoder, with a new preface by C. Arnold Snyder)
  2. The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (edited by William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, with a new preface by John D. Rempel)
  3. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources (edited by Walter Klaassen, with a new preface by John D. Roth)
  4. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents (edited by Leland Harder, with a new preface by Andrea Strübind)
  5. Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, with a new preface by Brian Brewer)
  6. The Writings of Dirk Philips, 1504–1568 (edited by Carnelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, with a new preface by Piet Visser)
  7. The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris (edited by Gary K. Waite, with a new preface by the editor)
  8. The Essential Carlstadt (edited by E. J. Furcha, with a new preface by Amy Nelson Burnett)
  9. Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith (edited by John J. Friesen, with a new preface by the editor)
  10. Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism (edited by C. Arnold Snyder)
  11. Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition 1527–1660 (edited by Karl Koop)
  12. Jörg Maler’s Kunstbuch: Writings of the Pilgram Marpeck Circle (edited by John D. Rempel)
  13. Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists 1529–1592 (edited by C. Arnold Snyder)

We hope that this re-launch will prompt new interest in the CRR series and that it will continue to be useful both inside and outside academia.

[1] “Classics of the Radical Reformation series,” Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, accessed 14 January 2020 https://www.ambs.edu/ims/classics-of-the-radical-reformation

[2] “Beyond Capitalism,” Plough Publishing House, accessed 14 January 2020, https://www.plough.com/en/events/2019/beyond-capitalism-san-diego-2019

[3] “Classics of the Radical Reformation,” Plough Publishing House, accessed 14 January 2020, https://www.plough.com/en/books/classics-of-the-radical-reformation

Martin and the Mennonites: Lessons From King’s Legacy for Today

Tobin Miller Shearer

Marie Regier wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr., a little over six months after his death. She recalled a conversation in which yet another acquaintance had suggested that King’s efforts had gone “too fast.” In response, this long-time white missionary to China said she grew so angry that she saw “red.”1

Rezmerski, John C. “For Martin L. King, Jr.” Mennonite Life, July 1968, 99.

Regier was hardly the first Mennonite to have written about King. In the space of the twelve years between 1956 and King’s death in 1968, at least ninety articles appeared in the Mennonite press that either mentioned King or were written by him. Following his assassination, Mennonites eulogized him in the pages of Christian Living, The Mennonite, Gospel Herald, Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and – perhaps most surprisingly – the conservative publication The Sword and Trumpet. Representatives from Mennonite Central Committee and the (Old) Mennonite Church’s Committee on Peace and Social Concerns attended King’s funeral and submitted reports about the event. In the year of his death, thirty-one articles appeared, almost all penned by Mennonite authors who claimed some kind of direct, personal connection with King.

In the dozen years that Mennonites engaged with King – indeed for the decade that followed and beyond – no single individual from outside the Mennonite community had more impact on the Mennonite peace position than did King. In comparison to other historically white denominations, Mennonites referred to, discussed, and connected with King to a greater and far more influential degree. Despite some who voiced concerns about King’s purported connections with communism, King loomed large among Mennonites at mid-century and served as a catalyst to substantive re-evaluation of white Mennonites’ commitment to nonresistance.

King’s Mennonite Connections

Mennonites’ connection with King was already well developed by 1956. In the pages of Christian Living readers encountered a report on the Montgomery bus boycott that emphasized the values of “love and nonviolence” at “the heart of their protest.”2 The following year readers encountered additional reporting emphasized his ongoing commitment to nonviolence, and Mennonite Paul Peachey called for Mennonite to act as “consultants” to ministers who were for the first time considering nonviolence after listening to King discuss the theology of repudiating “all force, war included” as part of their Christian witness.3

The connection between Martin and the Mennonites only solidified in the years that followed. In 1956, 1957, 1958, and 1960 tour groups sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee traveled through the South and often met with King. Following one such trip, minister Delton Franz, who later served as director of MCC’s Washington Office, couldn’t stop thinking about King’s challenge to eschew religion devoid of action, “the kind the Marxists like to see – an opiate of the people.”4 At the 1959 Race Relations Conference in Chicago attended by Mennonite leaders from across the country, participants referenced King’s writings, his activism, and his witness.5 By 1960, African-American Mennonite leaders Vincent and Rosemarie Harding had developed a relationship with both Martin and Coretta King and put plans in motion to relocate to Atlanta to found an integrated community of black and white Mennonites – Mennonite House – that was realized the following year.6 In the subsequent months, the Hardings reported on Mennonite Houses’ close proximity to the King residence, frequent consultations with King, and special assignments from King asking them to meet behind the scenes and negotiate with white moderates and segregationists alike at conflict sites such as Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama.7

Franz, Delton. “King Comes to Woodlawn.” The Mennonite, September 28 1965, 607-608.

King and Guy Hershberger

College professor and peace advocate Guy Hershberger particularly promoted King to the Mennonite world. He not only wrote about him in the church press on numerous occasions, but also hosted him at Goshen College in 1960 and attended meetings of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.8 In response to a request from Mennonite Stanley Kreider for clarification as to whether King exemplified “good Biblical nonresistance,” Hershberger revealed the high regard in which he held King and how central he felt he was to the church’s peace witness. Hershberger wrote, “However short King’s nonviolence may be of what the New Testament requires, I would need to say that as far as public figures are concerned, King was closer to it than anyone which American history has so far produced.”9 But a statement by Hershberger just prior to his assessment of King’s historic witness drives home the point of King’s relevance specifically to the Mennonite community. Hershberger wrote, “One thing which King should cause us Mennonites to do is to take a thorough look at what we mean by nonresistance.” He also relayed an anecdote passed on to him by long-time civil rights activist and educator Septima Clark about a time that King refused to strike back at an attacker who had just hit him in the face and asked his associates to also refrain from retaliating, saying, “Don’t hurt him; he doesn’t know what he is doing; we must overcome with love.”10

Mennonites understood such stories. They were the very stock in trade of many a sermon and household morality tale that formed Anabaptist youth and adults alike. While marching in the street gave most white Mennonites pause, turning the other cheek was familiar.

Of course, Hershberger wasn’t always so sanguine about King. Back in 1959, he and MCC representative Elmer Neufeld – who would go on to serve as president of Bluffton College – attended the First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation in Atlanta. In their report, the two men compared the Atlanta conference to one run by King and his lieutenant Ralph Abernathy, noting that the two men were “not strong in administration” and therefore vulnerable to take over by stronger administrators who were “secular and no more Christian than the N.A.A.C.P.”11 Hershberger expressed wariness about anyone who engaged in nonviolence for purely tactical reasons. He wanted King to succeed as a civil rights leader because, as Hershberger wrote a year later, King was “a Christian pacifist who sincerely seeks to follow Christ.”12

Many others from the Mennonite community joined Hershberger in seeking out positive connections with King. Lancaster Conference bishop Paul Landis reported that one of the first things King said to him was, “Where have you Mennonites been?” adding, “I’ve read your Anabaptist history and theology… at the time when we needed you most you weren’t there.” Landis said King concluded by saying, “I believe a lot of what you believe … you’ve showed us the way hundreds of years ago but we need your help now.”13 Those kinds of conversations helped pave the way for the Hardings’ eventual work in Atlanta. King also took time to meet with urban Mennonite church leaders in Chicago and Cleveland, visits that stayed with those involved for years to come.14

Some Mennonites made more negative connections. The white leaders of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in New York City took exception to King’s methods in a 1965 self-study. They stated, “A church of largely white members located in a Negro community in contemporary America offers potentially greater gains for the claims of Christ than does ten civil-rights marches led by Rev. M. L. King, Jr.”15 Likewise, that same year, Pamela Mueller, a Mennonite from Arizona, wrote a letter to the editor in the pages of the Mennonite Weekly Review in which she berated the “so-called reverend or doctor,” found his actions “inexcusable,” and claimed that he was “well-known in communist circles.”16 Like the Seventh Avenue congregants, Mueller also found King’s street marching the most objectionable. In a letter written two years later, she continued to rail against King, this time calling him an “agitator.”17

King’s Legacy for Mennonites and Beyond

It was exactly this kind of reaction that had caused Marie Regier to grow so frustrated. By 1968, she followed the news. She knew that, in her words, “angry black men” had grown tired of waiting for change in the aftermath of King’s assassination.18 She most certainly would have read Vincent Harding’s essay describing the wall of racial separation in the U.S. behind which African Americans had asked King, “Why? Why do we have to love, even after beatings and rejections and deaths? Why?”19 She might have recalled the article by black Mennonite pastor Curtis Burrell who criticized King for failing to “offer the black man an identity.”20 Her writing indicates that she knew just how profound an impact King had had on the black community, the country as a whole, and Mennonites in particular. She cautioned, “It may be too late even now to stem the tide” of racial rebellion.21 King had called for action much earlier.

In the decades that followed, King continued to prove influential. Mennonite Minority Ministries Council leader John Powell wrote that King’s death prompted him to enter the pastorate and go on to serve the church.22 In 1978, a group of black Mennonites in Philadelphia marked their reflections on their experience with racism in the church by referring to the time before and after King’s death.23 During oral history interviews conducted in the first decade of the twenty-first century, numerous Mennonite leaders brought up King’s influence about their work on racism in the church.24

The story I have described here of Martin Luther King’s involvement with the Mennonites offers three insights for those seeking to bear witness to King’s legacy today.

First, this history reminds us that King was controversial because he challenged the status quo. Both those who praised and those who pilloried him in the Mennonite community did so for essentially the same reason: he asked the community to do things differently. He was not satisfied with a society – or a church, whether Mennonite or otherwise – that supported and maintained white supremacy. Those involved in challenging those racist systems today should expect to encounter similar controversy.

Secondly, King found both strategic and ethical reasons to pursue nonviolence. Although new scholarship has emphasized that armed self-defense was an equally important element of the mid-century black freedom struggle, King worked hard to hold those around him to high standards of nonviolence.25 Even though he held far less virtuous values around other matters of ethical conduct such as marital fidelity and gender equity, on the point of nonviolence he had integrity worth modeling.

Finally, Mennonites found in King an example of the cherished narrative of selfless martyrdom. The eulogies that poured out after his death make that evident. But I don’t offer this element of King’s engagement with Mennonites as a historical exemplar. Although King was exhausted and depressed at the time of his death, he didn’t actively seek out martyrdom. At the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968, he was getting ready for an evening of feasting and fellowship with his friends and co-workers. On this last point, we can remind ourselves that the work of anti-racism is demanding and calls not only for persistence but also for all the practices of self-care and celebration along the way that we can muster.

Taking time to remember the full breadth of King’s legacy within and without the Mennonite community offers one place to begin that process of resistance and reflection.


  1. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” The Mennonite, November 26, 1968, 732.
  2. Glenn E. Smiley, “They Do Not Walk Alone,” Christian Living, November 1956, 13.
  3. Leo Driedger, “Faith Creates Colorblindness,” The Mennonite, November 5, 1957, 697; Levi C. Hartzler, “Looking at Race Relations,” Gospel Herald, December 31, 1957, 1145; Martin Luther King, Jr., “We Are Still Walking,” The Mennonite, January 29, 1957, 71; Paul Peachey, “On January 8-10, 1957, I Attended …,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Peace Problems Committee, 1957), 1-2.
  4. Delton Franz, “Notes on a Southern Journey,” The Mennonite, January 6, 1959, 6.
  5. Guy F. Hershberger, “Report of the Chicago Race Relations Seminar,” (Goshen, Indiana: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1959), 15.
  6. Rosemarie Harding and Vincent Harding, December 1961.
  7. Vincent Harding, “The Christian and the Race Question,” (Kitchener, Ontario: Mennonite World Conference, 1962); Rosemarie Harding and Vincent Harding, “Pilgrimage to Albany,” The Mennonite, January 22, 1963; Vincent Harding, “Birmingham, Alabama,” (Atlanta, Ga.: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section Executive Committee, 1963).
  8. Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community, ed. Theron F. Schlabach, 4 vols., vol. 4, The Mennonite Experience in America (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996), 256; Guy F. Hershberger, “Nonresistance, the Mennonite Church, and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, June 28, 1960; “A Mennonite Analysis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” (Goshen, Indiana: Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship, 1962).
  9. Stanley Kreider, Letter, April 25 1968; Guy F. Hershberger, Letter, May 24 1968.
  10. Hershberger to Kreider, 1968.
  11. Elmer Neufeld and Guy F. Hershberger, “First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation, Atlanta, Georgia, July 22-24, 1959: A Report with Recommendations by Elmer Neufeld and Guy F. Hershberger,” (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1959), 3.
  12. Hershberger, “Nonresistance, the Mennonite Church, and the Race Question,” 578.
  13. Paul G. Landis, “Interview with Paul G. Landis,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Lancaster, Pa./Evanston, Ill., 2005).
  14. Delton Franz, “King Comes to Woodlawn,” The Mennonite, September 28 1965. My mother and father, Vel and John and Shearer, often told me the story of the time King met with church leaders in Cleveland while they served with a Voluntary Service Unit there.
  15. “Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church: Self-Analysis of Congregation in Response to Questionnaire Titled ‘Some Questions to Ask When Describing a Church’,” (New York, N.Y.: Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church, 1965), 10.
  16. Pamela Mueller, “Tears and Lumps,” The Mennonite, May 18, 1965, 336.
  17. Pam Mueller, “Shook up but Different,” ibid., November 7, 1967.
  18. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” ibid., November 26, 1968.
  19. Vincent Harding, “Wall of Bitterness,” ibid., June 18, 1968, 426.
  20. Curtis Burrell, “Response to Black Power,” ibid., October 11, 1966.
  21. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” ibid., November 26, 1968.
  22. John Powell, “Among Chaos, a Place to Belong,” ibid., September 25, 1973.
  23. Katie Funk Wiebe, “Mennonites Like Me,” Gospel Herald, August 22, 1978.
  24. Ron Kennel, “Interview with Ron Kennel,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Goshen, Ind./Evanston, Ill., 2004); Calvin Redekop, “Interview with Calvin Redekop,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va./Evanston, Ill., 2004); Samuel Horst, “Interview with Samuel Horst,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Harold Huber and Vida Huber, “Interview with Harold and Vida Huber,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Landis; Paul Peachey and Ellen Peachey, “Interview with Ellen and Paul Peachey,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Harold Regier and Rosella Wiens Regier, “Interview with Harold Regier and Rosella Wiens Regier,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Newton, Kans./Evanston, Ill., 2005).
  25. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009); Akinyele Omowale Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Jr. Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014).